Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Sustainability is not stupid, stupid is not sustainable

What makes something sustainable? What defines sustainability?

To be sustainable an activity, action or policy must first satisfy a need, want or desire.  In short, a demand must exist.  The first fallacy of sustainability is to correlate sustainability with supply: sustainability is not a function of supply, it is a function of demand – existence of a substance does not define its potential as a resource, its utility does.  An entity having use, utility and a perceived worth to users, has a functional value and thus, constitutes a resource for which a demand exists. As technology changes, so does our sense of value of substances as to their value as a resource.

So, first condition of sustainability: demand.

Secondly, sustainability is defined by effectiveness.  Any activity, action or policy that is ineffective should by definition, be considered as inherently unsustainable.  If sustainability is the continued, progressive improvement from a base condition, any action, activity or policy that is ineffective, that exacerbates rather than improves the base condition, is therefore antithetical to sustainability, it is inherently unsustainable.

So, a second condition of sustainability: effectiveness.

Thirdly, sustainability is defined by efficiency.  Sustainability is the progressive improvement of the human condition.  To do more, in more places, more often, for more people is the very essence of efficiency.  Sustainability of any activity, action or policy is contingent upon economies of scale and context, the efficient delivery of change in a manner that make the activity, action or policy valuable to users and a perceived improvement in their living condition and situations.  Demand moves from quality to quantity as the free-market rules of economics are applied. Attention and application of efficiency is the fundamental law of economics which determines which innovations are sustained and life changing and which are fads, passing fancy and whims for which no imposition or government fiat can enforce their widespread adoption.  Without efficiency, an idea is just that: an idea.  Efficiency is essential to the successful implementation of any sustainable activity.

The third condition of sustainability is efficiency.

But what of ideology? Of defined “greenness”? Of perceived necessity for ecological salvation, world peace and/or sky falling pandemic?  None of these elements define sustainability, nor can they pre-empt either of the three essential and inherent conditions described above.
Activists may seek to impose any activity, action or policy in the name of whatever contemporary ideology is in fashion and in the political ascendancy.  Declaring something green, trotting out studies that indicate the necessity for any prescribed activity, holding mass rallies of support and/or corrupting and co-opting whole systems of governance can not obviate nor hide the essential character of any proposed activity, action or policy.  And if the advocated change is not sustainable, it is unsustainable and, thus, stupid.

But, wait, can’t something just be neutral?  Neither good nor bad?

No.  That is the crux of sustainability.  There is no steady state, no neutrality.  Every activity, action or policy has implications, effects and affects that either move societies and individuals towards an improved state or preclude that movement, act to facilitate positive change or hinder its achievement.  To stand still is to lose ground as change is constant and innovation and the human condition must continue to progress alongside those natural changes: any dead fish can float downstream, progress comes from the constant application of efforts to improve, to develop, to innovate to sustain the human condition. 

Sustainability is human progress defined by demand, effectiveness and efficiency.  Nothing is sustainable that does not satisfy these three conditions.

Moreover, if one accepts that improving the human condition is the most important and valuable activity, action or policy one can engage in, any change that precludes, hinders or otherwise slows the implementation of sustainability through a lack of demand, ineffectiveness and/or inefficiency, is stupid.

So, where are we?  Is today’s political landscape resplendent with potential and progressive innovation?  Or is it still entrapped in a plethora of dogma and adrift in a sea of stupidity?